Jon wondered once again what he was doing back here. He had been thinking the same thing every day for the past week. But something kept him here. From that first visit, her cryptic remark as he left had played on his mind. Her words were exactly as they had been that night. Had she somehow recognized him? But that was impossible.
That IED and the fire that had rampaged through their SUV, killing his men, and turning him into the monster he saw in the mirror when he dared to look, had destroyed everything of the man he had been that night. Besides, she had said something similar to the homeless man, hadn’t she?
But she had no way of knowing for sure that he had been a Marine. He had said nothing of his purpose in being in this town. So, why had she said that? Perhaps, though, she merely assumed. The extent of his injuries, this town that was home to little other than cacti, desert snakes, and the Marine base around which it had grown up, she could have, must have, put two and two together to come up with four. That was the only explanation.
Still, he could not put that doubt from his mind. Could not bring himself to walk away again as he had that night. Snuck out in the dark, left her sleeping, he had dared not look into the depths of those warm brown eyes one more time. He knew women lied; his wife had proved that. But something in those eyes had made him want to toss aside that lesson, to believe in love again. It was silly, ridiculous.
He had succumbed in the end, though. Her face, those eyes were what he saw as the heat and flames licked the skin from his flesh. Were his last thoughts as he lost consciousness. And the first when he awoke. Over the months and years of pain, they kept coming back to him at his lowest moments, when he would have given up, curled into a ball, and begged for the blessing of death that had been his mens’. He had known then that she had wormed her way into his heart that night, woven some magical spell of love and hope.
Hope, that was the other thing which kept him here. Over the past week, he had put a couple of pieces of the puzzle together. He had made friends with Steve, his homeless Marine comrade, and with the other waitress, Alison, too. He had tried to be subtle with his comments and questions, how lucky Alicia’s husband was to have her and such a beautiful little girl. What he discovered raised more questions than they answered.
For the woman, he would have sworn, was white picket fences, mini-vans, a half dozen kids, and pets, there was no husband. There had never been. She was a single mother. And try as hard as he dared, neither Steve nor Alison would betray the identity of the child’s father. If they even knew.
He had lain awake nights in his cheap hotel room, pondering that. The math worked. He had pumped the little girl herself for her age. Six, she had beamed — a big girl, in first grade now.
But they had been so careful that night. Hell, he remembered thinking that he would have woken Alicia to make love to her one last time before he left. Except the three-pack of condoms was empty. Sure, technically, he knew condoms were not one-hundred-percent. Was it possible?
He had tried to convince himself that he was not the only Marine Alicia ‘comforted.’ Her words, ‘no strings attached,’ would have attested to that. Except for the tightness that wrapped about his hard cock that night and the look of innocence in those eyes at the magical wonder of the heights to which they soared. He would bet what was left of his miserable life that the woman was not loose with her favors, as his mother would call it.
So, where did that leave him? A week in this hell hole that held too many memories, most of them bad, and Jon was no closer to having his answers than he had been the day he walked back into this place. His hand hovered on the metal handle.
He should just leave. Go back to his hotel room, pack what few things he had brought with him for what was supposed to be a quick check-up at the VA, arrange the online car service, cross the desert, and get up that mountain he called home. The place he had made for himself. His refuge. The one place where he need not worry about hoodies to cover his scars, the stares of others, the whispers, the looks of pity, or fright.
He turned. And that whirling dervish of energy and yes, Hope, ran straight into him. “Jon, Jon,” she chorused as if she had known him all her life, as if he were once more the man he had been, as if he were her…
Her little arms wrapped about his waist, “I have a new story today. Can I read it to you? Please?”
He looked up to the frightened and shocked face that had filled his dreams for seven long years. Though that was not the look, it wore in his fantasies. Alicia was quick to hide it, though, just not fast enough for the man that had once relied upon his senses and powers of observation to keep him and his men safe.
The look that replaced it was not much better, certainly not the one of blissful contentment that he had left on it that morning. It was polite, even a warm smile. But it was tight, and if you looked closely, that smile did not reach the depths of those warm brown eyes.
“Hope, I’m sure that Jon has other things to do. Maybe DeShawn will have some time after practice today, or perhaps Steve will be back. But I promise if they aren’t, I’ll listen before the dinner rush,” she smiled at her daughter.
Alicia lifted a nervous gaze to him, “I’m sorry. I know that Hope can be a bit overwhelming at times.”
He shook his head. Hope had not been overwhelming. She was a welcome distraction. Something that had been woefully missing in his life for a very long time. Something that he wished with all his battered heart was indeed his to hold onto for more than a brief story.
“It’s no bother, Ma’am,” was all he managed to say as he held open the door for them, then followed them inside.
Alicia peeked around the partition that separated the kitchen from the dining area. The sandy brown head bent over the book, so close to the scarred one of her father. Her throat tightened. Keloid, contracture, hypertrophic; over the past few days, Alicia had learned more about burns than she ever wanted to know.
If she had felt his pain that night, the pain of betrayal and loss, it was nothing compared to all he must have endured over the years. Almost certainly still did and always would. Her heart ached.
And now this. The sheet of paper trembled in her fingers.
“Are you okay?”
Alicia turned and tried to smile at her best friend and employee. Alison had been such a blessing. After her grandmother’s death and discovering she was pregnant, she had not known what she would do.
To compound that, the waitress that had worked for them for years had suddenly stolen three days’ worth of deposits, over five-thousand dollars. If the loss of money were not bad enough, Alicia had been only weeks from giving birth. How would she keep the diner open without a waitress? What would she and the baby live on while she recovered?
Then, one afternoon, this woman and her two sons had come in. Although they were big boys, even then, their mother had insisted they order from the children’s menu. She had only water. While the children grumbled and fought, Alicia had piled plates high with far more food than a child’s portion. She had added a third plate to the order. When she had taken the tray laden with her best to the table, the woman had cried and smiled weakly at Alicia.
As the boys demolished the food, the woman had snuck away, supposedly to the bathroom, but she had sought Alicia out. “Thank you for all that food. I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to pay anymore than what I ordered. I’m so sorry..” She had burst into tears.
Over a cup of coffee and apple pie, while her sons enjoyed their own dessert with extra ice cream, Alicia had drawn the woman’s story out. She was fleeing an abusive husband. But their car had broken down only a couple hundred miles into the cross country trip to the brother that had reluctantly agreed to take them in.
With no money to pay for car repairs or even the tow truck, Alison was out of options. There was no way her brother would send the money, and if she called her husband to get them, well, it did not bear thinking about. To make things worse, they had not eaten since breakfast that morning.
Alicia had empathized with the woman. Her hand covered her baby bulge as she thought of all she would do for this little one. She had offered Alison and her sons the spare rooms at her Grandmother’s house. Even though she could have used the money, she had not been able to bring herself to sell the house that had been in her family for generations.
Instead, she had given up her apartment and moved into it. But it was three bedrooms, and she only used one. There was plenty of room for them. Alison could work as a waitress until she had the money to fix the car and a little extra for gas and hotels.
That was over six years ago, and they had never left. Well, Damien, Alison’s oldest son, was away at college now. And his younger brother, DeShawn, would soon be graduating and going away as well. The two single mothers and their children had formed an odd sort of family, Alicia supposed. Supporting one another.
But obviously, it had not been enough for Hope. She handed the paper to her friend as the tears ran faster down her cheeks.
Alison glanced at it for a moment, then wrapped her arms around Alicia. “We both knew they were missing a man in their lives. Sure, Damien and DeShawn had their coaches, but it was not the same as a father. And as much like big brothers as they have been to Hope, it isn’t the same.”
Alicia wiped the tears with the back of her hand as she sniffed, “Yeah, I know. Just look at how she has always gravitated to Steve. When he goes off drinking like this, she is lost.”
Her friend nodded, “He’ll be back, sweetie. Hope is good for him too. Without her, the man would probably never be sober.” She tilted her head towards the dining area, “And besides, this time, at least, she has a distraction.”
Alison’s words were meant as comfort, but they burned into her soul. What would her friend say or think if she knew that Jon was the no-string-attached lover that had gifted her with Hope?
The women had become like sisters; there were no secrets between them. Alison knew of that one perfect night, and Alicia knew the messy details of Alison’s decade-long marriage to the professional athlete whose occasional abuse had escalated as his career faded. But Alicia had not told her friend the truth about this new ‘regular.’ The time had just never seemed right, and it was not now either.
“I better start cleaning up. You want to take Hope home and get her ready for bed, please?”
Alison stilled; her gaze seemed to search Alicia’s face for a long moment before she wrapped her in a warm embrace. “As I said six years ago, I’m here for you anytime, in any way, for as long as you need me. You know that, right? I can never repay what you have done for the boys and me.”
Alicia wrapped her arms around her friend, returning the hug. “You don’t owe me anything. You never have. I’m the one in your debt. I don’t know what I would have done if your car hadn’t broken down that day. How would I have kept this place going? Who would have shown me how to change diapers or breastfeed? And I sure as hell would not have survived two days of back labor without your support. I love you; you know that, right?”
Alison chuckled, “Well, not the good kind. We have both been missing that for a long time. But as much as I love you too, neither of us swings that way. Might be nice if we did…”
Alicia drew back. She had sensed some change in her friend for weeks. Some restlessness, unease perhaps, but lately, she had been so caught up in her own mess that she had not given it much thought. “You okay, Allie?” she used the nickname that she rarely did.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s just that with Damien gone and DeShaun leaving in a few months. Well, you have a few years before you have to face an empty nest.”
“You always have a home here. Hope and I still need you.”
“Yes, but this is a reminder that our kids need more than we can give them, isn’t it?” Her friend held out the paper for her. “I’ll kidnap her away from our new customer and take her home. See you once you close up here.”
She brushed a kiss against Alicia’s cheek and squeezed her shoulders, “We’ll figure it out. We always do.”
Alicia nodded and smiled, trying to fake the confidence she did not feel as she stared again at her daughter’s incomplete homework assignment.
Jon knew he should have left long ago. He had been here for hours. His early dinner long since finished. He had eaten two pieces of pie as an excuse to remain. He remembered the taste of the pie that night. He remembered everything about that night. Whether this was as good as that had been, he would never know. His sense of smell and taste was deadened by those flames too.
He watched her clean up the dining area, refill the condiment containers, and wipe down each chair and table just as she had that night. The cook had left over half an hour ago. Alison had taken Hope home a couple of hours earlier.
Jon knew where they lived. He had felt like some stalker as he followed her that first night. Of course, he had excused it as a need to protect Alicia. She still did not have better sense than to take the nightly deposit to the bank all alone.
He had expected her to cross the street to the row of apartments where they had gone that night. But instead, she had continued down the main street. It was a good ten or fifteen-minute walk to the quiet street with its scattering of a handful of non-descript single-story brick houses. The woman should have driven. It would have been safer. So, he had taken to guarding her each night. Of course, she did not know that.
She had moved on to cleaning up behind the counter. Her actions practiced as if she had done it a million times. Perhaps she had. He knew so little of her life. Had nothing to go by except a single night in her arms and the furtive glimpses of the past few days.
She lifted the coffee pot and walked towards the booth where he sat. Without a word, she poured the remnants into his cup. He expected her to go back to her cleaning. Instead, she took a seat across from him. She put the coffee pot down on the table next to her. Her hands clasped in front of her. Her eyes were downcast. Long moments ticked by. Jon did not know what to say. Neither, it seemed, did she.
When she shifted, Jon thought she might rise and go back to her duties. But she reached into the pocket of the white apron she wore and pulled out a piece of paper. She did not even glance up at him as she unfolded it and placed it on the table in front of him.
“I was called to the school today.”
He saw tears slip from the corners of her eyes. He ached to kiss them away but reminded himself he had no right. The only thing he could do was listen. If she needed someone to share her burdens with, it was the least he could do.
“I’ve tried so hard. Most of the time, I think I’m doing a pretty good job with her.”
Words of reassurance were on his lips, but before he could utter them, she continued, “Then something like this happens. And I know there are somethings I can never give Hope, holes in her I can never fill. I should have known that. I grew up with those same holes, made up the same fantasies.”
She finally looked up. Those brown eyes that had filled his dreams were brimming with unshed tears as others coursed down her cheeks. “But this time, there is something I can do. It may not be much. And I certainly have no right to ask you this.”
Whatever she wanted, he would do. Anything to halt those tears that ripped his heart apart as much as that explosion had his body, mind, and life. She had only to tell him what she needed. He would do it somehow. But Jon was not prepared for her next words.
“I know I promised you no-strings-attached. And this is a helluva string. But please, please, I beg you, for Hope’s sake,” she pushed the paper closer to him.
For the first time, Jon looked down at it. The words across the top burned into his brain – Family Tree.
“I promise I won’t draw you any deeper. I mean, Jon is a common name. Hope, hell, I don’t even know your last name. Shit, I don’t care, don’t even bother with it. Whatever you can do.”
She shook her head as she tried to draw the paper back. Jon’s unscarred right hand covered hers, captured the form beneath.
“I’m sorry. This was a bad idea. I don’t know what I was thinking. This isn’t your problem. Forget I said anything.”
Alicia rose from the table and ran into the back of the diner, leaving him alone to stare at the half-completed paper. Her words, their unstated meaning, echoed in his scarred mind as he read the first line – Guadalupe Hope Flores.
Above it, in a child’s scrawl, Alicia Maria Flores. The two rows above that were complete, but the other side of the sheet was blank. Well, not exactly empty. They were marred with the raised scars of dried tear stains. Were they Hope’s tears or Alicia’s? Maybe both.
Jon folded the paper and put it in his pocket as he placed a wad of bills under the coffee cup. He needed to think. He needed fresh air. And to walk.
Even though the thought had crossed his mind, hell, it had taken up residence in one of its endless dark corners, nothing had prepared him for this. For the reality of what it all meant. He had a daughter. A child that needed him. No one had needed him for five years. Not since the day he had let his men down.
So, what are you gonna do about it, jarhead? That was what he needed to walk and think about.